Professor Jeanie C. Crain
The Bible as Literature
October 7th, 2012
Jeanie C. Crain, The Bible as Literature: An Introduction, Polity Press, 2010. Pgs 43-64
Crain begins chapter three by defining the structure of the Bible as interlocking patterns of myth, metaphor, and typology richer than the descriptive language of fact and evidence. “The figurative uses of language in literature and religion invoke vision and offer revelation of a reality greater than time and space”, states Crain so elegantly. A crucial difference between reading the Bible as literature and reading it for a religion Crain argues is that literature, unlike religion, neither affirms nor denies the reality of the vision. As a review from chapter two, Crain stresses that a literary approach to reading the Bible means understanding how it uses language, both literal and figuratively, to present human experience in a linked pattern of images, metaphors, motifs, symbols, and archetypes.
The rhetoric device of image names a concrete thing or action and demands readers to experience literally and connotatively what the image evokes. A symbol on the other hand stands for something other than its literal meaning. Archetype refers to a repeating image or pattern representing the universal elements of human experience. Because the Bible uses rhetoric devices such as metaphors, similes, and symbols, it can be confusing sometimes to distinguish between what is intended to be reality, and what is intended to rely on the human imagination. Crain mentions that the issue of determining what is real in general involves a complicated history of philosophy which assigns “reality” to the external world, to the mind, or to some interaction of the two. While it is crucial for the reader to determine what reality throughout the Bible is, the important mythological and metaphorical image-making capacity of the imagination is just as crucial to properly understand the Bibles text.
When dealing with images throughout the Bible two of the most well-known are light and water. These images begin in the literal and concrete, with Genesis describing the essential components to life as beginning with the primal elements of light and water. The images light and water are also mentioned in the figurative sense in the Bible such as when Revelation uses them figuratively them in its vision of a New Jerusalem, which is a city that “has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God is its light, and its lam is the lamp. John sees a river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city” (Revelations 22:1-2).
Light becomes a source of life, goodness, and a symbol of God, representing the Messiah, and the Church. Light appears as one of the Bible’s major and most complex symbols, appearing nearly 200 times from the moment of physical life coming forth as the first created thing and the destruction of darkness in Revelation’s New Jerusalem. Darkness, light, and fire provide primal images symbolizing God’s absence or presence. Light also functions throughout the Bible to uphold right actions and behaviors in contrast to the less attractive symbol of darkness. The Bible often describes human reaction to life using light of darkness. Related to light, sight and blindness also figure prominently in the Bible. Physical blindness, resulting from a lack of light, symbolizes spiritual blindness and the inability to recognize and face truth. The absence of light becomes a major archetype in the apocalyptic visions of the end time. Isaiah describes the day of the LORD as a time where “the stars of the heavens and their constellations will not give their light; the sun will be dark at its rising and the moon will not shed its light” (Isaiah 13:10). Crain closes the discussion on light by stating that theologically, light symbolically depicts the transcendence and immanence of God: from above, but permeating everyday life, its functions are critical to transform the human and earthly with the transcendent splendor that is God.
Water imagery in the Bible more than triples that of light, appearing over 600 times. Symbolically water functions in three main ways: as a cosmic force of life that can be controlled only by God; as a source of life; and as a cleansing agent. Common places where water is mentioned in the Bible include springs, wells, cisterns, seasonal rains, floods, the crossing of waters, the drawing and carrying of water, and ceremonial cleansings with water. Throughout the Bible water brings life and death, blessing and affliction, order, and chaos. Unlike light which mainly symbolizes God-like things, water can symbolize both prosperity and destruction. As example of water acting as an agent of destruction can be found in the story of Noah’s Ark. At the same time an example of the prosperity of water can be found in numerous Biblical passages such as in Revelation where it describes the exalted Christ standing among the seven golden lampstands with a voice like the sound of many waters (Revelation 1:15). Water in the Old Testament invokes a special cosmogony: a flat earth, a dome of heaven, and, below the earth, the realm of death and the sea of chaos. The sea, which was the original enemy of God at creation, must be defeated. This need to conquer water becomes a prevailing motif throughout the Bible, an act that can only be accomplished through God.
In the subject of human character, many metaphors define the divine-human relationship, the five of the most common being those of king and subject, judge and litigant, husband and wife, father and child, and lord or master and servant, all suggesting an obligation in the relationship. Each metaphor starts with the literal, physical image but, in addition to the literal image, each represents in some way a quality of God. Ignoring the metaphoric significance of these relationships in the Bible greatly takes away from the meaning and experience the reader would receive. The Bible uses the recurrent patterns of king, judge, husband, father, and master to express the infinite character of God.
The Bible depicts two royal images of kingship: one human and the other divine. On both levels, the king symbolizes an image of protection, justice, power, and authority. Because humans viewed kings in this light it is only natural to apply this term to God. When talking about kingdoms God’s kingdom is mentioned sixty percent of the time which serves as a central, unifying motif in the Bible. Physically, kings sat upon thrones, which happens to symbolize the Davidic covenant (God’s promise that descendants of David would always sit upon the throne). In addition to the Davidic covenant, the Bible uses thrones to symbolize God’s sovereignty, power, and splendor. The Bible is full of references to God’s throne, providing examples to how our relationships as humans to our kings can be metaphorically applied to our relationship with God who is also our king. Like any good king God is believed to rule with justice and steadfast love and mercy. In addition to being a king, the Bible describes God as a perfect and patient judge, who warns degenerate humankind continually that rebellion leads to final judgment. The actual judgments of God remains mysterious but it can be clear that in the Bible God is the ultimate authority and justice. Metaphorically, human judges only imitate God’s righteousness. They in no way shape or form try to usurp God’s role as the final judge, but rather function as deliverers, prophets, kings, and priests.
In perhaps the most important metaphor of relationship/unity in the Bible, beginning with Adam and Even in Genesis and ending with Christ and the Church in Revelation, is that of marriage. Marriage, metaphorically, describes a true unity, a relationship built upon mutual love and sealed in a permanent form. Marriage points both to the possibility of physical and spiritual creation. Fertility functions in the Bible as a metaphor for blessing, miracle, and joy, and extends into the idea of resurrection and spiritual life. Physically, husband and wife share the same human identity before God, becoming united in “one flesh” (Genesis 2:24). Man and wife complete each other, discovering companionship and intimacy together and, together with God, produce children.
Fatherhood in the Bible provides a general theology and a major archetype, occurring over 1000 times. God the Father provides the example of what an ideal father should be; an example of which that is failed miserably by physical fathers on earth. In the Lord’s prayer, Jesus teaches the disciples to pray to the Father as “Our Father in heaven…” (Matthew 6:9). Through the metaphor of Father, the concrete and finite world is connected to the eternal and infinite. The Creator is father of all children who participate in the Father’s kingdom.
All four Gospels in the New Testament colorfully describe the crucifixion of Jesus. The imagery of the cross becomes an expression of suffering, commitment, self-denial, and the bridging of the gap between humanity and God, the breaking of the barrier between Jew and Gentile, and the restoration of the entire cosmos. The New Testament interprets the Old Testament sacrifice to expiate sin typologically: all sacrifices are made in anticipation of the supreme sacrifice which was Jesus. Blood figures prominently in the crucifixion as a source of life. In Mark, on the first day of the Feast of Unleavened Bread the disciples make preparation for the Passover, at which Jesus Celebrates, taking the cup and explaining, “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many. Truly I tell you, I will never again drink of the fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new in the kingdom of God” (Mark 14:24-25.
I thoroughly enjoyed reading chapter three. Crain did a fabulous job of incorporating Bible passages to help define the new rhetoric devices and methods that were introduced. I feel like we are ever closer to transitioning into actually interpreting the Bible on our own. We obviously still have much to learn about the methods and practices we will use to do so, but I feel like chapter three has “loosened the reins” so to speak and allowed us to begin to critically interpret the Bible passages Crain presented us with. I am very eager to begin chapter four, I look forward to continuing to learn about how to properly interpret the Bible from a spiritual and literary standpoint.